After 20 years with the company and living through two CEOs passing away, Ken decided it was time for him to go.
Ken was in Orlando with other McDonald’s employees at a national convention where CEO Jim Cantalupo was supposed to be honored for turning the company around.
The company’s stock had done really well, and 15,000 people were at the convention, including suppliers, franchisees, etc.
At about 5 a.m., Ken got a call from one of McDonald’s suppliers who told him something was wrong, and he needed to find out what was happening. Ken got up, threw on his clothes, went down to the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and saw a few people, including Jim’s driver for the weekend, who was puffy-eyed.
The driver told Ken that Jim had died during the night of a massive heart attack.
Jim was 62 years old, a great friend, and had been a customer of Sethea’s for 25 years. It was a real shock to the convention.
As a result, the board elected Charlie Bell, 43, from Australia. Charlie was another good friend of Ken’s, and he was president and chief operating officer at the time.
Charlie was having some stomach problems and when they all went back to have Jim’s memorial, Charlie said he needed to have a colonoscopy to find out why. Ken went to the hospital on a Saturday to be with Charlie’s wife, and then, on Monday, Charlie called Ken to his office after just a few days as CEO.
He said, “I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that I do not have Crohn’s disease, which was suspected.”
Ken asked what the bad news was.
“I have cancer.”
There were three of them in the company, including Ken, who knew about Charlie’s cancer, and they got Charlie into hospital thanks to Ken’s connection to the Ronald McDonald Charities. They announced that the surgery was successful and that Charlie would resume duties as soon as possible.
The next week they had a meeting with the board of directors of Ronald McDonald Charities, which included four of the top oncologists in the country. Ken got the oncology reports from the surgery, blanked out Charlie’s name, and asked the doctors to meet him in Charlie’s office. He passed the oncology reports around to all of them. This included a former U.S. Secretary of Health Lewis Sullivan. They all looked at the reports and one said, “Whoever this is has a 25 percent chance of responding to chemo therapy, but I would say he has only two years to live at the most.”
Seven months later, Charlie died.
Then the board of McDonald’s elected Jim Skinner to be chairman. Jim was a guy who had not really contributed much, but had a big ego. He was somewhat jealous of Ken’s position, and they didn’t get along very well. Then they brought in another guy, Mike Roberts, a golf partner and good friend of Ken’s, to be the president. Ken and Mike had spent a lot of time together with McDonald’s. They said Jim would be the CEO for two years and then Mike would take over.
Two years went by, and the company was using things the former leaders had put in place and started gaining traction once again. The stock was back up to the 30s and 40s, and the board said they really did not need to change the arrangement because it was going so well. They decided Jim would just stay where he was and Mike would remain the president. Mike pointed out that they had a deal, but the board said they had changed their collective mind.
Mike quit on the spot.
There were many ripples as a result, and Ken’s life started to become miserable. Jim would frequently call him in and give him a hard time. Ken had completed 20 years with the company, which had been his initial plan, so he decided he had had enough.
He consulted his family and left McDonald’s on January 1, 2007.